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Diana Wynne Jones

AUTOBIOGRAPHY – Part 1 (go to Part 2

Diana’s official autobiography, first published more than twenty years ago in 'Something About the Author' Autobiography Series, Volume 7



I think I write the kind of books I do because the world suddenly went mad when I was five years old. In late August 1939, on a blistering hot day, my father loaded me and my three-year-old sister, Isobel, into a friend’s car and drove to my grandparents’ manse in Wales. "There’s going to be a war," he explained. He went straight back to London, where my mother was expecting her third baby any day. We were left in the austere company of Mam and Dad (as we were told to call them). Dad, who was a moderator of the Welsh Nonconformist Chapels, was a stately patriarch; Mam was a small browbeaten lady who seemed to us to have no character at all. We were told that she was famous in her youth for her copper hair, her wit, and her beauty, but we saw no sign of any of this.

Wales could not have been more different from our new house in Hadley Wood on the outskirts of London. It was all grey or very green and the houses were close together and dun-coloured. The river ran black with coal – and probably always had, long before the mines: they told me the name of the place meant "bridge over the river with the black voice." Above all, everybody spoke a foreign language. Sometimes we were taken up the hill into suddenly primitive country to meet wild-looking raw-faced old people who spoke no English, for whom our shy remarks had to be translated. Everyone spoke English to us, and would switch abruptly to Welsh when they wanted to say important things to one another. They were kind to us, but not loving. We were Aneurin’s English daughters and not quite part of their culture.

Life in the manse revolved around Chapel next door. My aunt Muriel rushed in from her house down the road and energetically took us to a dressmaker to be fitted with Sunday clothes. On the way, she suggested, as a way to stop us feeling strange, that we should call her Mummy. Isobel obligingly did so, but I refused on the grounds that she was not our mother – besides, I was preoccupied with a confusion between dressmakers and hairdressers which even an hour of measuring and pinning did not resolve.

The clothes duly arrived: purple dresses with white polka dots and neat meat-coloured coats. Isobel and I had never been dressed the same before and we rather liked it. We wore them to Chapel thereafter, sitting sedately with our aunt and almost grown-up cousin Gwyn, through hours of solid Welsh and full-throated singing. Isobel sang too, the only Welsh she knew, which happened to be the name of the maid at the manse, Gwyneth. My mother had told me sternly that I was bad at singing and, not knowing the words, I couldn’t join in anyway. Instead, I gazed wistfully at the shiny cherries on the hat of the lady in front, and one Sunday got into terrible trouble for daring to reach out and touch them.

Then my grandfather went into the pulpit. At home he was majestic enough: preaching. he was like the prophet Isaiah. He spread his arms and language rolled from him, sonorous, magnificent, and rhythmic. I had no idea then that he was a famous preacher, nor that people came from forty miles away to hear him because he had an almost bardic tendency to speak a kind of blank verse – hwyl, it is called, much valued in a preacher – but the splendour and the rigour of it nevertheless went into the core of my being. Though I never understood one word, I grasped the essence of a dour, exacting, and curiously magnificent religion. His voice shot me full of terrors. For years after that, I used to dream regularly that a piece of my bedroom wall slid aside revealing my grandfather declaiming in Welsh, and I knew he was declaiming about my sins. I still sometimes dream in Welsh, without understanding a word. And at the bottom of my mind there is always a flow of spoken language that is not English, rolling in majestic paragraphs and resounding with splendid polysyllables. I listen to it like music when I write.

Weekdays I was sent to the local school, where everyone was taught in Welsh except me. I was the only one in the class who could read. When the school inspector paid a surprise visit, the teacher thrust a Welsh book at me and told me in a panicky whisper to read it aloud. I did so – Welsh, luckily, is spelt phonetically – and I still understood not a word. When girls came to play, they spoke English too, initiating me into mysterious rhymes: Whistle while you work, Hitler made a shirt. War had been declared, but I had never heard of Hitler till then. We usually played in the chapel graveyard, where I thought of the graves as like magnificent double beds for dead people. I fell off the manse wall into such a grave as I declaimed, "Goebbels wore it, Goering tore it," and tore a ligament in one ankle.

After what seemed a long time, my mother arrived with our new sister, Ursula. She was outraged to find Isobel calling Aunt Muriel Mummy. I remember trying to soothe her by explaining that Isobel was in no way deceived: she was just obliging our aunt. Unfortunately the voice I explained in had acquired a strong Welsh accent, which angered my mother further. We felt the strain of the resulting hidden rows as an added bleakness in the bleak manse. We were back in Hadley Wood by Christmas.

Looking back, I see that my relationship with my mother never recovered from this. When she arrived in Wales, she had seen me as something other, which she rather disliked. She said I would grow up just like my aunt and accused me of taking my aunt’s side. It did not help that, at that time, my hair was just passing from blond to a colour my mother called mouseand I looked very little like either side of the family. My parents were both short, black-haired, and handsome, where I was tall and blue-eyed. When we got back to London, my mother resisted all my attempts to hug her on the grounds that I was too big.

Meanwhile, the threat of bombing and invasion grew. London was not safe. The small school Isobel and I were attending rented a house called Lane Head beside Coniston Water in distant Westmorland and offered room in it to my mother and her three children. We went there in the early summer of 1940. Here were real mountains, lakes, brooks racing through indescribable greenness. I was amazed – intoxicated – with the beauty of it.

We were told that Lane Head had belonged to John Ruskin’s secretary and that this man’s descendants (now safely in America) had been the John, Susan, Titty, and Roger of Arthur Ransome’s books. Ruskin’s own house, Brantwood, was just up the road. There was a lady in a cottage near it who could call red squirrels from the trees. This meant more to me at the time – this, and the wonder of living in a rambling old house smelling of lamp oil, with no electricity, where the lounge (where we were forbidden to play) was full of Oriental trophies, silk couches, and Pre-Raphaelite pictures. There was a loft (also forbidden) packed with Titty and Roger’s old toys. The entry to it was above our room and I used to sneak up into it. By this time, war shortages had made themselves felt. There were no new toys and no paper to draw on and I loved drawing. One rainy afternoon, poking about the loft, I came upon a stack of high-quality thick drawing paper. To my irritation, someone had drawn flowers on every sheet, very fine and black and accurate, and signed them with a monogram, JR. I took the monogram for a bad drawing of a mosquito and assumed the fine black pencil was ink. I carried a wad of them down to our room and knelt at the window seat industriously erasing the drawings with an ink rubber. Halfway through I was caught and punished. The loft was padlocked. Oddly enough, it was only many years later that I realised that I must have innocently rubbed out a good fifty of Ruskin’s famous flower drawings.

The School and its pupils left the place towards the end of summer, but we stayed and were rapidly joined by numbers of mothers with small children. The world was madder than ever. I was told about the small boats going to Dunkirk and exasperated everyone by failing to understand why the Coniston steamer had not gone to France from the landlocked lake. (I was always asking questions.) Bombs were dropping and the Battle of Britain was escalating. My husband, who had, oddly enough, been sent to his grandparents barely fifteen miles from us, remembers the docks at Barrow-in-Furness being bombed. He saw the blaze across the bay. During that raid a German plane was shot down and its pilot was at large in the mountains for nearly two weeks. It is hard now to imagine the horror he inspired in all the mothers. When he broke into the Lane Head pantry one night and stole a large cheese, there was sheer panic next morning. I suppose it was because that night the war had briefly climbed in through our window.

Being too young to understand this, I had trouble distinguishing Germans from germs, which seemed to inspire the mothers with equal horror. We were not allowed to drink water from the washbasin because it came from the lake and contained typhoid germs. The maker’s name on the washbasin was Twyford. For years I thought that was how you spelled typhoid. I had a terrifying recurring dream of these typhoid Germans – always dressed in cream-coloured Anglo-Saxon tunics – running across the surface of the lake to get me. When a large Quaker family arrived to cram into the house too, bringing with them an eleven-year-old German-Jewish boy who told horrendous stories of what the police did – they took you away in the night. he said, to torture you – I had no idea he was talking about the Gestapo. I have been nervous of policemen ever since.

The Quaker family, all six of them, had a cold bath every morning. We were regularly woken at 6:06 A.M. by the screams of the youngest, who was only two. In their no-nonsense Quaker way, this family got out the old boat in the boat house and went sailing. I can truthfully say that I sailed in both the Swallow and the Amazon , for though this boat was a dire old tub, she was the original of both. I didn’t like her. On a trip to Wild Cat Island I caught my finger in her centerboard, and my father neatly drowned us in her trying to sail in a storm on one of his rare visits from teaching and fire-watching in London.

The mothers gave the older children lessons. Girls were taught womanly accomplishments. Being left-handed, I had great trouble learning to knit until a transient Icelandic lady arrived with a baby and a large dog and began teaching me the continental method. She left before teaching me purl or even to cast on stitches. I had to make those up. Another mother taught sewing. I remember wrestling for a whole morning to sew on a button, which became inexplicably enmeshed in my entire supply of thread. Finally I explained to this mother that I wasn’t going to grow up to be a woman and asked if I could do drawing with the boys. She told me not to be rude and became so angry that – with a queer feeling that it was in self-defence – I put my tongue out to her. She gave me a good shaking and ordered me to stand in the hall all the next morning.

The same day, other mothers had taken the younger children to the lakeshore to play beyond the cottage of the lady who called squirrels. The noise they made disturbed the occupant of the houseboat out in the bay. He came rowing angrily across and ordered them off, and, on finding where lived, said that he wasn’t going to be disturbed by a parcel of evacuees and announced that he would come next morning to complain. He hated children. There was huge dismay among the mothers. Next morning I stood in the hall, watching them rush about trying to find coffee and biscuits (which were nearly unobtainable by then) with which to soothe the great Arthur Ransome, and gathered I was about to set eyes on a real writer. I watched with great interest as a tubby man with a beard stamped past, obviously in a great fury, and almost immediately stormed away again on finding there was nobody exactly in charge to complain to. I was very impressed to find he was real. Up to then I had thought books were made by machines in the back room of Woolworth’s.

My brush with the other writer in the area was even less direct but no more pleasant. We were up near Sawrey, which was a long way for children to walk; but, if the mothers were to go anywhere, they had to walk and the children had to walk with them. No one had a car. Isobel and another four-year-old girl were so tired that, when they found a nice gate, they hooked their feet on it and had a restful swing. An old woman with a sack over her shoulders stormed out of the house and hit both of them for swinging on her gate. This was Beatrix Potter. She hated children, too. I remember the two of them running back to us, bawling with shock. Fate, I always think, seemed determined to thrust a very odd view of authorship on me.

The boy who kept talking of the Gestapo was only one of several disturbed children among us. The madness of those times got into the daughter of the sewing lady too. She began systematically pushing the younger children off high places. She told me and swore me to secrecy. I knew this was wrong. My grandfather haunted me in dreams and I kept telling myself that I was feeble not to tell someone – but I had sworn. Even so, when the girl pushed Isobel down a deep cellar I summoned my courage and told my mother. This caused a terrible row, as bad as the row in Wales, and I think that as a result of it my mother decided to leave Lane Head. She went to York to find a teaching job, leaving us in the charge of the other mothers. That night, the daughter of the sewing lady suggested it might be fun if I sneaked into her bedroom to eat aspirins with her. Feeling like an adventure, and also feeling bad at having betrayed this girl’s trust, I did so. Aspirins were horrible. I swallowed mine with huge difficulty and asked her what she saw in them. Nothing, she said. It was just that you were forbidden to eat them. And she spat hers out on the carpet.

Here her mother irrupted into the room.

I remember that a Court of Justice was hastily convened. Three mothers. I stood accused of leaving my bed in order to spit aspirins all over another’s carpet. I remember I was bemused to find that the other girl was not accused of anything. Sentence was that I and my bed were taken downstairs to a lumber room and I was to sleep there. I rebelled. I got up again and went into the forbidden lounge where I did what I had always wanted to do and took down one of the heavy, slightly rusty Indian Army swords. I wondered whether to fall on it like a Roman. But since it was clear to me that this would hurt very much, I put it back and went out of the open window. It was near sunset. The grass was thick with dew, but still quite warm to my bare feet. The sky was a miraculous clear auburn. I tried to summon courage to run away in my nightclothes. I wanted to. I also had a dim sense that it would be an effective move. But I could not make myself take another step. I went back to the lumber room knowing I was a coward.

In fact, when my mother came back late the next night she thought I had run away – or been taken ill. Since nobody had told her, I suspect that the punishment was aimed at her too. There were further rows before we left for York in September 1941.

Despite this, that time in the Lake District is still magical to me. The shape of the mountain across the lake has, like my grandfather, become part of my dreams. Since the mountain is called the Old Man of Coniston, they sometimes seem to be the same thing.

In York, we boarded in a nunnery. The blitz was on and the war was moving into its grimmest phase, which may have been why we never got enough to eat there. Granny – my Yorkshire grandmother – used to send us hoarded tins of baked beans which my mother heated in an old tin box over a gas ring in our bedroom.

My sister Ursula was now old enough to be a power. She was a white waifchild with black, black hair and a commanding personality. While my mother was teaching, Ursula had various nannies, whom she ordered mercilessly about and did imitations of in the evenings. I had long known that Isobel was the best and most interesting of companions. It was marvellous to discover that Ursula, at two-and-a-half, could make us fall about laughing. I knew I was lucky to have sisters.

My mother decided that Ursula was going to be an actress. Isobel, she told us, was beautiful but not otherwise gifted. As for me, she said, I was ugly, semi-delinquent, but bright. She had the nuns put me in a class with nine-year-olds. This was the first I knew that I was supposed to be clever. I did my best, but everything the class did was two years beyond me.

Religion was beyond me, too. The nuns, being an Anglican order, worshipped in York Minster and took us with them. This huge and beautiful cathedral must have been ten times the size of the chapel in Wales. I could not make head or tail of the mysterious, reverent intonings in the far distance. I fidgeted and shamed my mother until one of the nuns took me instead to a smaller church from then on. There I sat, wrestling with the notion that Heaven Is Within You (not in me, I thought, or I’d know) and of Christ dying for our sins. I stared at the crucifix, thinking how very much being crucified must hurt, and was perturbed that, even with this special treatment, religion was not, somehow, taking on me. (I put it this way to myself because I had baptism and vaccination muddled, like germs and Germans.)

Weekdays, I joined a playground game run by the naughty son of another teacher. It was called the Soft Shoe Brigade, in which we all marched in step and pretended we were Nazis. I could not understand why the nuns put a stop to it.

My pleas to be put into a class of younger children were granted near the end of the time we spent there. After a few weeks’ bliss, doing work I understood, we went back to Hadley Wood in 1942. By then, the bombing was beginning to seem like the weather, only more frightening. When the siren sounded at night, we went to the ground floor where we sat and listened to the blunt bang and sharp yammer of gunfire and the bombs whistle as they fell, or watched searchlights rhythmically ruling lines in the sky. Recently I was talking to a woman my own age: we both confessed that any noise that resembles these, or the sound of a low-flying plane, still makes us expect to be dead next moment.

The world was mad in daytime, too, not only with rationing, blackout, brown paper stuck to bus windows, and notices saying "Careless Talk Costs Lives." The radio talked daily of bridgeheads, pincer movements, and sorties, which one knew were terms for people killing people. My father was away most nights fire-watching and at weekends he exercised with the Home Guard.

One Sunday I almost fell over one of our neighbours who was crawling about in the field behind our house with – inexplicably – a great bunch of greenery on his head.

"Oh, Mr. Cowey!" shouted I, in much surprise "What are you doing crawling about with a bush on your head?"

He arose wrathfully, causing the greenery to fall into two horns. "Get out of it, you stupid child!" he snapped, the image of an angry nature god. "You’ve spoilt the whole bloody exercise!"

Considering this madness, it is not surprising that, at the latest of many private schools we went to that year, when the forbidding teacher announced, "All those children for elocution stand up and go into the hall," I mistook and thought the word was execution. I trembled, and was astonished when they all came back unharmed. At that same school, Isobel’s teacher used to punish her for writing left-handed. She was shut in a bedroom, being punished, one day when the air-raid siren went. The rest of us were marched into the moderate safety of the hall, but Isobel was forgotten. I wrestled with my cowardice and managed to make myself call out that Isobel was still in the bedroom. The teachers were, I suppose, scared to go up there during a raid. They told me fiercely to hold my tongue and made me sit for the rest of the week behind the blackboard as a lesson for impudence. There was more disgrace than hardship to this. I used that time for reading.

I read avidly that year, things like The Arabian Nights and the whole of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Soon after I was eight, I sat up from reading in the middle of one afternoon and knew that I was going to be a writer one day. It was not a decision, or even a revelation. It was more as if my future self had leaned back from the years ahead and quietly informed me what she was. In calm certainty, I went and told my parents.

"You haven’t got it in you," my mother said. My father bellowed with laughter. He had a patriarch’s view of girls: they were not really meant to do anything. Though he never said so, I think it was a disappointment to him to have three daughters. My mother, as always, was more outspoken. She said if it were not for the war, she would have more children – boys.

I think my mother was very discontented that year. She was, after all, an Oxford graduate who had dragged herself up from a humble background in industrial Yorkshire by winning scholarships – and all she had for it was the life of a suburban mother. I know she encouraged my father to apply for the husband-and-wife job they took in 1943.

The job was in a village called Thaxted in rural Essex. My parents were to run what would nowadays be called a conference centre for young adults, a place where teenagers who worked in factories in urban Essex could come for a week or weekend to experience a little culture. It was one of many schemes at that time which looked forward to the widening of horizons at the end of the war, and it had considerable propaganda value, since it was by no means clear then that the Allies were going to win the war. My father believed in it utterly, and it became was his life for the next ten years.

I was already wrestling to make sense of the experience of the previous four years -particularly the religion. Now I had a whole new set, three or four new sets, in fact, all going on at once. Thaxted, to take that first, was straight out of a picture postcard, with houses that were either thatched and half-timbered or decoratively plastered, and a medieval guildhall straddled the main street. The church, at stately and ethereal beside a majestic copper beech, stood at the top of the hill opposite Clarance House (the house my parents ran). Industry was represented by a little sweet-factory at one end of the village and a man who made life-sized mechanical elephants at the other. The place was connected to the outside world by sporadic buses and by a branch railway that terminated a mile outside the village (but my the train driver would grudgingly wait for anyone he saw panting up the hill to the station). On holidays, people did folk-dancing in the streets. There was also much handweaving, pottery-making, and madrigal singing.

This idyllic place had the highest illegitimate birthrate in the county. In numerous families, the younger apparent brothers or sisters turned out to be the offspring of the unmarried elder daughters -- though there was one young woman who pretended her daughter was her sister without grandparents to main help – and there was a fair deal of incest, too. Improbable characters abounded there, including two acknowledged witches and a man who went mad in the church porch at full moon. There was a prostitute not much older than me who was a most refined person, with a face like alabaster, a slight foreign accent, and tweeds. There was another who looked like an artist’s impression of Neanderthal woman; she had a string of pale thin children, each huge famine-poster eyes.

I had assumed you had to be married before you had children, so all this was quite a shock. I began to suspect the world had always been mad. In self-defence, my sisters and I assumed our home life was normal, which it certainly was not. Clarance House was as beautiful as the rest, built in the days of queen Anne, with graceful wall panels indoors, although the interior was somewhat bare, because the Essex Education Committee which financed the place could seldom spare much money. Here my father threw himself into life as an educator and entertainer, for he was as gifted in his way as my grandfather and could hold an audience like an actor, whether he was making intellectual conversation at table with my mother, introducing a lecture, or telling ghost stories to rapt teenagers. His main story about Clarance House. There was the remains of an old stair in a cupboard where, my father claimed, you could hear disembodied feet, climbing, climbing … We knew he was right to call the house haunted, but the really haunted part was the main entrance hall, which I always felt compelled to run through if I had to cross it, shaking with fear. Eventually one of the cleaners saw the ghost. She had been chatting to it while she polished the hall for once some minutes, thinking it was the girl she worked with. Then she looked properly and found she see through it. She had hysterics and left at once for a job in the bacon factory in Great Dunmow.

My mother organised the cleaners, the cooks, and the domestic side, and in her spare time went feverishly into local history and madrigal singing. Not a day passed without some fearful crisis, in which mother raced about inveighing against the Committee, the war, or my father, while my father stormed through the house in a fury, forgetting to speak English in his rage. His life was wholly public: my mother’s three-quarters so. Neither had time for us. For a short while the three of us children shared a room at the top of the house; but my parents were so dedicated to making a success of the centre that they decided that room was needed for additional guests. We were put out into The Cottage. This was a lean-to, two-room shack across the yard from the house. The mud floor of the lower room was hastily covered with concrete and our beds were crammed into the upper floor. And we were left to our own devices. Looking back on this, we all find it extraordinary; for damp climbed the walls and, almost as soon as we had arrived in Thaxted, I had contracted juvenile rheumatism, which seriously affected my heart; and Ursula also contracted it soon after.

The only heating was a paraffin stove – and how with we failed to set The Cottage on fire I shall never know. The stove was often knocked over during games or fights, or encased in paper when we dried paintings. There was nowhere to wash in The Cottage, so we seldom bothered. Nor did we comb our hair. Ursula, whose hair was long, wild, and curly; tied it in two knots on her forehead to keep it out of her eyes. My mother did not notice for six months. Then I got into trouble for allowing it. But Ursula always did what she wanted. The following year she refused to eat anything but three slices of bread and yeast extract a day, whatever Isobel or I said, and my mother never knew about that at all.

Copyright © Diana Wynne Jones